Comedy is tougher to write than any other kind of fiction. While every art form relies on some initial moment of recognition and sympathy on the part of the audience, successful comedy depends also on mood, i.e., someone's state of readiness to laugh. Worse, this is not a condition that can be willed into existence. On the contrary, the more willpower is invoked, the less amusement there will ultimately be.
It is for this reason that the most skilful comic writers slip us gently into their off-kilter world and craftily row us out into deep water until, sooner or later, the left-brain realist is lulled to sleep and we find that, however silly the goings-on, we are smiling a lot, and from time to time laughing out loud. (This well-known stage is usually accompanied by the irresistible urge to "just read this one little part" to an unreceptive companion.)
But Love and Other Ruins, by Karen X. Tulchinsky (Polestar Books, Vancouver, 2002; 317 pages, cloth, $21.95) slaps you in the face with its assumptions right away, and never stops making them. Readers who are not members of society's Jewish gay/lesbian subgroup need to be welcomed into it, not suddenly immersed with no opportunity to come up for air.
In the current social climate, it's hard to criticize a book like this without being labeled homophobic or anti-Semitic, but when a book's humour appears to depend almost entirely on reader identification with a social subgroup, it must be pointed out that those who don't belong feel excluded. And that is not funny.
If the author wants to reach a wider audience, she will have to make a better effort to connect with them. This book has too much of an "in-group" sensibility. Shockingly, its stereotypical portrayal of both Jewish and gay/lesbian cultural life is so marked that had the author been a straight gentile woman, she would have been vilified.
It has always been true that young people are concerned with finding love and meaningful work. But these characters, though not so young, Henry, 38, and Nomi, 30, respectively¨ appear to think mainly of sex. As soon as they meet up with someone they find attractive, they're rubbing up and down against each other¨so much and so often, I began counting. In all, there are 14 full sexual encounters, and probably as many again that are imagined or almosts. Whew! If it weren't for the AIDS-conspiracy portion of the book¨which was interesting but not at all funny¨I might have felt that this was a book solely about sexual encounters. How representative would the lesbian/gay community feel Tulchinsky's characterizations to be?
Karen X. Tulchinsky knows how to create funky characters, and she can write dialogue. But if she doesn't give her wings a workout, she'll never leave the nest. She's written what she knows. She should write now about some things she's less familiar with. Maybe then the rest of us can laugh along with her, instead of standing on the sidelines watching. ˛